Judith and the Vikings

Artemisia Gentileschi, “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (1620). Uffizi Gallery.

In ENGL 801 “Graduate Studies in English,” a required course for incoming M.A. students, we have always asked our graduate students to develop an original contribution to a current scholarly conversation about a literary or cultural text.

This fall, we added a final writing assignment: we asked our graduate students to create a piece of public scholarship (700-1,000 words), tailoring their academic paper and its scholarly intervention of 10-12 pages for a general-interest audience.

Students followed the guidelines shared by Irene Dumitrescu in her essay “What Academics Misunderstand about ‘Public Writing’”: “you should follow Horace’s advice for poetry: Aim to instruct or delight – ideally, to do both. Tell your readers a story, and give them the basic information they need to take it in. Avoid jargon for the most part, but teach your readers a key term when it will help them understand your topic better.”

During the next week, we’ll be featuring the three pieces of public writing selected for publication here following anonymous review by three faculty members. Today, we start with “Judith and the Vikings” by Caitlin Radonich (MA ’22). Enjoy!

Karin Westman, Associate Professor and Department Head / Instructor for ENGL 801 (Fall 2020)

Move over, Beowulf.

Odds are, if you took an English survey class in college, you’ve encountered Beowulf in some form or another — a poem about a boastful chap, who kills Grendel, and Grendel’s mum, and a dragon, before kicking the bucket himself. Or maybe you’re familiar with a slightly different sequence of events from the (terrible) 2007 movie. The point is, if you’ve encountered one work of Anglo-Saxon literature, it was Beowulf.

Don’t get me wrong, Beowulf is a great story, one I highly encourage everyone to read, if only to see where Tolkien got his source material. The problem with Beowulf, though, is that due to its venerated status it exerts a gravitational pull on the study of Anglo-Saxon literature — a tractor-beam of attention that’s difficult to escape. Well, today I would like to break that tractor-beam by introducing you to Judith, a woefully neglected but equally fascinating work, with a heroine to rival Beowulf.

You’ve probably been wondering about the story behind the lovely image above, in which a burly woman, the sleeves of her sumptuous gown rolled up to her elbows, is mid-way through beheading a man. That unlikely executioner is Judith, that unfortunate man is Holofernes, and (spoiler alert) that scene is the climax of Judith.

The poem Judith is an adaptation of the Vulgate Bible’s book of the same name. The story goes as follows: the pagan Assyrians have besieged the Hebrew city of Bethulia, and so holy Judith, acting on divine inspiration, goes to the Assyrian camp with the intention of assassinating the enemy general, Holofernes. After an evening of riotous drinking, Holofernes, dazzled by her beauty, has Judith brought to his tent, where in his drunken state she overpowers him and cuts off his head with his own sword. She then takes the severed head back to Bethulia, where she is praised for her virtue and valor; the Hebrews arm themselves and rout the besieging Assyrians, who are caught unawares and without a leader. Having saved her hometown, Judith lives out the rest of her days in quiet seclusion, a revered folk-hero.

Empowering stuff, no?

What’s fascinating about the poem Judith is the way it elaborates on its biblical source material, making the character of Judith even more powerful and heroic than she is in the original.

In the Vulgate, Judith is a pious widow, at once both chaste and seductive; she sees herself as an instrument of God’s deliverance of her people, but nevertheless weeps as she prepares to kill Holofernes. In the poem Judith, the titular character is transformed into a virgin, whose seductive beauty, although present, is downplayed while Holofernes’ drunkenness is emphasized (Magennis 333). This Judith has no time for tears; her eyes remain quite dry as she hacks off Holofernes’s head. Here’s a sampling of the language used to describe Judith as she prepares to behead Holofernes:
Then she took the heathen man
firmly by his hair, drew him towards her with her hands
contemptuously, and that wicked one
skillfully subdued, that hateful man,
so that she might with greatest ease
well overpower that wretch. (lines 98-103)
Compare this description to the rather straightforward narration of the biblical account: “She took him by the hair of his head, and said: Strengthen me, O Lord God, at this hour. And she struck twice upon his neck, and cut off his head” (Douay-Rheims Bible, Judith, 13.9-10). Although the basic action remains the same, the poem’s vivid elaborations on just how Judith grapples Holofernes transforms her from a meek instrument of divine providence into a conquering heroine.

These moments of elaboration on the source material take on even more weight when we consider England’s political situation during the period when Judith was likely composed. Our earliest copy of Judith comes from the reign of Ethelred II, also known (due to a bad translation of a worse pun) as Ethelred the Unready, who ruled England from 978-1016. Coincidentally, those years were not a very good time to be an Anglo-Saxon. Although the Danes had periodically plagued England since the 8th century, things got particularly hairy during King Ethelred’s reign. After dealing the English a crushing defeat at Maldon in 991, over the ensuing decades the Danish invaders extracted exorbitant sums in tribute while laying waste to the countryside; the English response was ineffective, and their chronicles from the time portray the invasion in increasingly apocalyptic terms (Neidorf 121). The pinnacle of English desperation can be seen in a legal code promulgated by King Ethelred in 1009, which called for the members of each social class to contribute to a national effort of “public prayer and penance” (Neidorf 120), beseeching Heaven for relief from the pagan Danish raiders. The situation was so grim that only divine intervention could save Anglo-Saxon England.

Can you see why the story of Judith, an underdog heroine who defeats and repels the pagan invaders, would have been attractive to the Anglo-Saxons at this time? Judith reflects the desperate hope of a nation that feels on the brink of annihilation, that a heroic champion like Beowulf will rise up to defend them. We can see another moment of Judith’s elaboration on its biblical source material when Judith prays for divine assistance before killing Holofernes. The poem takes the simple prayer of “strengthen me, O Lord God, at this hour” from the Vulgate and elaborates it into twelve lines of supplication, as Judith contemplates what she is about to do. Judith is rewarded for her prayer with victory over her enemy, sending a clear message to the poem’s Anglo-Saxon audience: God rewards true believers with victory over pagan invaders.

Unfortunately for the Anglo-Saxons, the divine intervention they begged for never came. In 1016 England became part of the Danish empire, until the Norman Conquest exactly 50 years later. Judith, however, survived, a short but powerful work about a fascinating heroine, who deserves to be ranked alongside Beowulf as one of the great heroes of Anglo-Saxon literature.

Works Cited

Magennis, Hugh. “Adaptation of Biblical Detail in the Old English Judith: The Feast Scene.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 84, no. 3, 1983, pp. 331–337. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43343533. Accessed 15 October 2020.

Neidorf, Leonard. “VII Æthelred and the Genesis of the Beowulf Manuscript.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 89, no. 2, 2010, pp. 119-139. ProQuest, www-proquest-com.er.lib.k-state.edu/docview/874204977. Accessed 9 November 2020.

The Bible. Douay-Rheims Version, Lorento Publications, 2005.

Caitlin Radonich (MA ’22)

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